Sharp spring came, and with it mud. Cold early rains turned the still-frosty soil to a rich black paste, something that clung to your boots and spoiled the rugs. Clea didn’t care that it did. After the deprivations of winter, a little mud was good for the soul. But she was surprised to find it all over the sheets.
Danny grumbled beside her as she held the covers up to examine her black-streaked legs. Specks of soil rolled on the sheets between them. She felt grains of it, still damp, beneath her hips and shoulders. She lay still as a rabbit for a moment. This was all so familiar.
The clock in the parlor chimed. Clea awoke.
It was only going on eight, early for a Sunday, when Clea came in barefooted from the deep, foggy yard with her hands full of wet roots and thin, springy branches. She cradled them to her chest like birds. There was life in them, waiting to will out.
Clea walked softly down the house’s center hallway, her footsteps cushioned with mud. She glanced in at Danny as she passed the bedroom, a faint curve on her dry lips, a low song in her throat. Although the shades were up for the pearly morning light Danny still slept, wrapped in crisp white sheets, his mouth opened in a snore.
In the quiet kitchen Clea lay her gatherings in the wide enameled sink and turned the tap on low. Cool water splashed off the tangled brown roots. She pressed the knotted things under the rising water, smiling softly at how the plane of the water distorted their lines, at the chill in her hands, at the pale blue flush that altered her skin. Dirt seamed her nails. Black grains sifted down through the clear water to sand the white enamel.
Beneath the skin of the blue, clean water Clea bent the thin green branches into a circlet, tying the fragile ends to each other in a thick knot, tucking clumps of roots between the stems as decoration. She lifted her new crown high, dripping, and settled it on her unbrushed hair. Delicate streams ran down the curves of her cheeks and nose, dripped from her pointed chin. She wiped the drops away where they tickled and sucked the water and dirt from her fingers. Ennobled, she shucked off her robe and bottoms and walked flat footed down the hallway to the bedroom. Crumbs of rich mud scattered in her wake.
She leaned over the bed, scenting him. Her cool hands moved in patterns over his sleeping face. He sighed like a child.
“Danny,” she breathed. “Oh, Danny-boy.”
He roused and rolled over, away from her, but Clea was not to be refused, not with a crown of new branches on her head and the earth itself in her teeth. She worked his nightshirt from his shoulders and used it to cover his eyes. He laughed and struggled, but not hard enough to win. When she drew him to his feet and pushed him along before her, he laughed again and toddled where she steered.
She let him out into the cold wet air to the broad stump in the middle of the long garden, which had been a tall oak until an autumn storm shattered it. She sat him down on it and stepping quickly behind him tugged the nightshirt down from his eyes. He looked up into the white morning sky, waiting. The damp nest of twigs scratched down his forehead as she gave the crown to him, and then he felt her fingers slip over his cheeks.
He expected something else when she used her curved dirty fingers to push roots from the crown into his eager mouth. The roots and her skin tasted of earth and damp wood, and he choked trying to swallow.
“Hush, now,” Clea crooned, her chin pressing his. She licked his open lips and smiled at him. “Can you feel it, yet?”
Danny’s eyes bulged from the pressure in his throat, but he nodded.
She tucked her legs up between his, spread his thighs with her own. What came out of her then flowed out in a surge, black mud and roots and thin twining vines that reached for him, sucked at his flesh and found its way in. Soon the roots had spun a dense net between them, binding them one to the other at the hips.
“There you go,” she whispered, riding him, biting at his ear. She pulled him close and rolled with him on the wide stump, dragging Danny over and atop her. Green rimmed the wet of his eyes like duckweed on a pond. Pale leaves opened along his jaw. He laughed around the tendrils spreading out from his face. It sounded like a song.
They grew into each other, soft earth spilling from their split skins where the wry tendrils climbed toward a distant sun. Roots wormed their way down from them into the stump, breaking up the spongy wood and driving toward the black earth below. Soon a burst of thin new trunks grew where the old oak had been, a braided column of saplings and water sprouts that suggested a bending form.
The clock in the parlor chimed, again. Clea woke, again.
She rose with clear-eyed vigor, swung her muddy legs from the bed and padded out to the kitchen for coffee without stopping to wash. In nothing but her rumpled nightclothes she stepped out onto the half-submerged paving stones by the back door, leaving the door unlatched to let the freshening breeze blow through the house. A fine mist dimmed the bright morning air, the day still too early for it to be burned off by the sun. She clasped her hands around her coffee mug and considered the young oak tree now rising in the center of the deep yard.
Beneath her bare feet, the earth began to warm.
“Danny!” she called loudly though the open door behind her. “Come see!”